Screaming unpopular opinions into the void is one of the great joys of the internet. But in some parts of the globe, that is a privilege that can be dangerous. If those subversive opinions seem to be gaining traction, those in power might turn off the spigot of discord.
Uganda appears to be the most recent nation in which free speech on the internet is no longer a given. On Thursday, the Ugandan government passed a law that imposes a daily tax of 200 Ugandan shillings (roughly 5 cents) on people who use WhatsApp and Facebook. It also now demands a 1 percent fee for each mobile money transaction — a significant change, since e-commerce is booming – conducted anywhere within the African continent.
President Yoweri Museveni justified the move citing the need to raise funds that could help the government “cope with the consequences of their lugambo” — a colloquial term used to refer to gossip, spreading rumors, opinions or insults – according to a quote in Ugandan outlet Daily Monitor,
Critics were quick to call out the Ugandan government for limiting free speech. Only about 40 percent of Uganda’s 40 million people use the internet, and a large chunk of them use WhatsApp and Facebook, according to Reuters. That additional cost will most certainly keep even more people off the internet.
Indeed, the Ugandan government already has a reputation for not tolerating free speech online. Critics like academic and LGBTQ theorist, Stella Nyanzi, have been jailed for “insulting” the president on social media. And since social media has been used in other countries to organize demonstrations and unite voices of dissent, it’s not much of a stretch to see Museveni’s move as an attempt to silence the opposition before the same could happen in Uganda.
And then there’s the money involved. There’s no guarantee that the Ugandan government will funnel it into a fund to “stop lugambo” (how do we stop gossip, anyway?). Uganda scored a 26 out of 100 in “perceived level of public sector corruption” according to Transparency International’s 2017 ranking – 0 is “highly corrupt,” and 100 is “very clean.” So, that’s not a great score. With that kind of track record, an extra couple of million Ugandan shillings in the bank could likely end up somewhere else entirely, and the public would never know.
Albeit, taxing apps offered for free by the companies that run them, is not the most overt technique out there for silencing free speech. The governments of Russia and Iran, for example, have prohibited entire platforms like Telegram. Uganda itself even blocked Facebook and WhatsApp during its 2016 elections. It is possible that this tax was born out of frustration with the limited success of an all-out ban like that.
As has been proven time and again, taking away a platform for dissidents never really works as governments plan. They’ll find a new place to congregate, new ways to fight the power.